Dennis O’Driscoll (1 January 1954 – 24 December 2012) was an Irish poet, essayist, critic and editor. Regarded as one of the best European poets of his time, Eileen Battersby considers him “the lyric equivalent of William Trevor” and a better poet “by far” than Raymond Carver. Gerard Smyth regards him as “one of poetry’s true champions and certainly its most prodigious archivist”. His book on Seamus Heaney is regarded as the definitive biography of the Nobel laureate.
In all, O’Driscoll wrote nine books of poetry, three chapbooks, and two collections of essays and reviews. The majority of his works can be characterised by the use of economic language and the recurring motifs of mortality and the fragility of everyday life. As he aged, O’Driscoll’s works become more fluid and thoughtful as well as more frequent, and, according to some sources, like Alan Brownjohn of The Sunday Times for instance, even though he is younger than some of the poetic greats, “at best he is already their equal.”
Born on 1 January 1954 in Thurles, County Tipperary, O’Driscoll was the child of James O’Driscoll and Catherine Lahart, a salesman/horticulturist and a homemaker. He was educated by the Congregation of Christian Brothers and then studied Law at University College, Dublin1972-75. After completing his secondary education, at age sixteen (1970), O’Driscoll was offered a job at Ireland’s Office of the Revenue Commissioners the internal revenue and customs service. Specializing in “death duties, stamp duties, and customs,” he was employed for over thirty years full-time.
He lived in Naas, County Kildare, until his sudden death.
Later, in the 1970s and 80s, O’Driscoll held many part-time jobs and positions in association with his writing. He took, for instance, a position as part-time editor of Tax Briefing, a technical journal produced in Ireland, as well as reviewing poetry for Hibernia, and The Crane Bag. He also served on the council of the Irish United Nations Association from 1975-80. After this, he married Julie O’Callaghan, a writer, in September 1985. In 1987, he temporarily became a writer-in-residence at the National University of Ireland. He has also served as editor of Poetry Ireland Review as well as two textbook anthologies entitled The Bloodaxe Book of Poetry, and Quote Poet Unquote.
After thirty-eight years in Revenue, in early 2008, O’Driscoll was asked to write a poem marking the opening of the Revenue Museum in Dublin Castle, marking the first time his job and his art would intermingle. This poem, At The Revenue Museum, which was originally brought to life to be printed in a program for the opening ceremony, now hangs as an exhibit in the museum itself.
O’Driscoll stayed in the revenue business for as long as he did due to the advice of a colleague, who told him, “If you ever leave your job, you will stop writing.” Thus, revenue became a sort of fall back option for him; a career that paid regularly and provided a pension. Whereas poetry was his art. Even so, in his memoir entitled, Sing for the Taxman, O’Driscoll states, “I have always regarded myself as a civil servant rather than a ‘poet’ or ‘artist’ – words I would find embarrassing and presumptuous to ascribe to myself.”
O’Driscoll died suddenly at the age of 58 over the 2012 Christmas period. He was rushed to hospital after becoming ill but quickly succumbed to his fate. The arts world was shocked by his sudden demise. His wife, the poet Julie O’Callaghan, and siblings – brothers Proinsias, Seamus, Declan, and sisters, Marie and Eithne – survived him.
President Michael D. Higgins noted that O’Driscoll was “held in the highest regard not only by all those associated with Irish and European poetry”. Joe Duffy, with whom O’Driscoll had appeared on air on the very week of his death, called O’Driscoll a “generous, caring and witty man”. Fellow writer Belinda McKeon said he was “a scholar, a gentleman, a character, a friend”. British critic David Morley described him as “fine poet and great critic”. Irish PEN mourned his death.
Prior to the publication of his own poems, O’Driscoll published widely in journals and other print publications as both an essayist and poetry reviewer, for which he was very widely known. In fact, The Times Literary Supplement has called him “one of Ireland’s most respected critics of poetry.” During this time he contributed upwards of two-hundred essays and reviews to various publications. Some of the better known periodicals he has been published in are Poetry, The London Magazine, Harvard Review, The Southern Review, Narrative Magazine, and Poetry Review. He was invited to give readings of his work in such places as the Poetry Room in Harvard University, the Poetry International in London as well as the Hay-on-Wye and Cheltenham festivals of literature.
He has published a collection of literary criticism entitled Troubled Thoughts, Majestic Dreams, which contains a selection of his essays and reviews. A new collection of his essays, The Outnumbered Poet is forthcoming from Gallery Press. Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney, an acclaimed 500-page volume of his interviews with 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature recipient, Seamus Heaney, was published in 2008. He served as a judge for the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2009. He is editor of A Michael Hamburger Reader, scheduled for publication by Anvil Press in 2013.